Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
Growing up, one of my favorite pastimes was reading mystery stories. I too seldom allow myself the time to read a good mystery anymore, but I remember the distinct pleasures of a good Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie story well—it’s all about noticing the clues, of course, and a good writer will always have scattered red herrings in along with them. As you read, you ask yourself things like: why didn’t the butler deliver the letter to the lady of the house? Did he do it on purpose, or did he just forget? Why didn’t the dog bark in the nighttime? And so on, and so forth. The story’s entire world hums with possible significances and hidden meanings, there to show you whodunit if only you had the eyes to see. You sift for clues and try out different stories in your mind—was it the Colonel in the library with the knife? The butler in the pantry with the rope? You do all of this knowing full well that at the end, if the author has done her job well, you will inevitably be shown up by the story’s detective hero—Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot will have noticed clues that were right there in front of your nose, and tied them together with things that never occurred to you but of course make perfect sense, and all of a sudden you’ll smack your forehead and say—of course it was the butler all along! Of course he was in cahoots with the scullery maid! Why didn’t I see that the whole time?
I wonder sometimes if the appeal of detective stories has a lot to do with our desire to live in the kind of world they portray—a meaningful and mysterious world, full of clues and hints to something that lies hidden in plain sight, with some kind of story that makes sense of it all. Not to mention, a detective who makes sure that the culprit is caught and justice is done. I wonder if mysteries appeal to people in large part because they have a hard time seeing the real world of their everyday lives as that kind of place. The theologian Robert Jenson points out that for the past two thousand years of Western history, people by and large saw their lives as dramatic narratives, as stories that went somewhere that matters—take for instance anything by Jane Austen or Shakespeare. Someone like Lady Macbeth is destroyed by her own misdeeds; someone like Miss Emma Woodhouse grows and changes from a rather spoiled and insufferable girl into a mature and considerate young woman. Behind each story arc is the much longer story arc of the world they live in—one that, as Martin Luther King famously said, may be long indeed but bends toward justice. Shakespeare and Austen told the sort of stories they did because they assumed that the world itself was a great story, written by a single Author who is also our Judge and our Redeemer. Back behind Shakespeare and Austen lay Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, and Dante’s Divine Comedy, and back behind them lay the Bible, the world’s great story of creation, fall, and redemption. In Dante’s day, people thought that the world bears traces of its author’s design, clues to where the story is going, for those with eyes to see. Perhaps you have come across, in an old church or a medieval piece of Christian art, a stylized mother pelican feeding her young, and wondered what it was doing there. It was thought, though it is not actually true, that in times of dire need mother pelicans will feed their young with their own lifeblood by striking at their breast, so giving their lives for their children. It is easy enough to see why this was taken up as a symbol for the work of Christ, who gave his life for us. But we would misunderstand them if we thought they merely found it to be a convenient symbol to illustrate their beliefs. It went deeper than that—they thought that they saw in the pelican a trace of the Author’s hand, a clue hidden in plain sight that told of the true story of the world. Of course there were red herrings scattered about, that might lead one to believe that suffering, sin and death would have the last word, that life was a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. But here was a real sign, and they knew it because the Author of the world had entered into the story itself to shine a light on all of our darknesses and confusions, and had shown us that at story’s end, justice will be done and the lost will be saved. For them, the world itself was a kind of mystery, because within it and behind it and beyond it lay the mystery of Christ.
Perhaps you are thinking: this is all very interesting as a matter of art and literary history, but we don’t believe that kind of thing nowadays—pelicans aren’t images of Christ, they’re just funny-looking birds that evolved a certain way for no reason more than it helped the pelicans to make more pelicans. Maybe so. I do not think the pelicans are a ditch that the Christian faith has to die on, let alone the second chapter of John’s gospel. But John does have something to tell us about what it means to have eyes to see, and what God has done to change our way of seeing. As John tells it, Jesus goes about Israel performing signs—the wedding at Cana was the first of seven—and these signs were meant to reveal his glory. In the chapter following ours, the Pharisee Nicodemus, who had heard of these things, said to Jesus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Seeing the kingdom of God is no simple thing, and the modern mindset doesn’t make it any easier. It may well be true, of course, that modern people are right to say that the pelican is just a funny-looking bird, and not a sign of Christ. But it may also be true that medieval people gained much more than they lost in seeing the pelican as they did, because the story of the world really is written by a divine Author who entered into its drama as one of us, in order to turn the story arc of the world away from tragedy and back into deep comedy, the divine comedy he had planned to write all along. It may well be that their eyes were better at seeing signs of this story than ours.
There are things beside the modern mindset that make it difficult to see the kingdom of God, of course. Perhaps you find yourself at Cana today. Perhaps the wine of joy in your life has run dry, in your marriage, in your health, in your family or friends. Perhaps you fear that the banquet is at its end, that the guests will one by one make their excuses and get up to leave. Perhaps they already have. Or it could be that you are like the Israelites in Isaiah’s day, and you are tempted to look around and call your land desolate, your home forsaken. Perhaps it is hard to see things any other way. That’s where all the signs seem to point. That’s where the story seems to be going.
That’s why God gave us a sign, in Christ, of the world’s true story. In this world it can sometimes be very hard to see past the signs of desolation and loneliness and decay. So into this world God came, to show us we are not forsaken but married, loved by God as a bridegroom rejoices and delights in his bride. Into this world God came to show us that the wine of joy will never run out, that the well of the water of life will never run dry. For those with eyes to see it, he is still here—he is alive in the church, and he invites us each day to come to the table he has set for us, to eat this bread and drink this cup, of forgiveness and new and unending life in him. He has given us these signs. The last word of the last sentence of the story of the world, and of our lives, will be written by him. Amen.
I’ve been stuck home with the big bad flu and enjoyed Jordan’s sermon.
I also remembered Paglia’s anecdote about an English major coming up and thanking her for mentioning about Adam and Eve. She hadn’t known who they were until then… Wouldn’t this sermon serve as a good introduction to the sort of contemporary English major who has no earthly idea where Western culture sinks its deepest roots?
And I thought also of Epstein’s marvelous essay on Isaac Bashevis Singer. If he does not know it, Jordan would like to read it, I think. Here’s the close:
Which brings me round to the question with which I began: Why I believe that Isaac Bashevis Singer is the only writer of the past fifty years likely to be read with the same interest a hundred years from now. The answer, I believe, is not that Singer is a marvelous storyteller, which he was; nor because his oeuvre presents the most complete record of Ostjuden life before it was obliterated by the Nazis, which it does. No, I think that Singer’s fiction will continue to live because he placed his powerful talent in the service of a great theme: the continuing drama of salvation, or finding acceptance in the eyes of God based on the way that one has lived.
This drama of individual salvation was once played in the mind of nearly everyone, from kings to peasants. The Enlightenment and all that followed from it has gone a long way to muffle it. But not for everybody, not for lots of intelligent people who cannot find their answers to life’s deepest puzzles in philosophy or science–and distinctly not for Isaac Bashevis Singer.
I DO NOT PROFESS to report on the state of Singer’s soul. Apart from his literary gifts, he seems not at all Godly and not exactly God-fearing. Perhaps “God-haunted” describes him best. The question of the existence of God, His design, His meaning, why He allowed suffering, such things were never far from Singer’s mind. He claimed to believe in God, to have “made peace with human blindness and God’s permanent silence, but they give me no rest.” He also claimed to feel “a deep resentment against the Almighty,” in good part owing to His permitting the Holocaust, in lesser part for being a silent God, revealing “Himself in very, very small doses, yet showing very little evidence of His mercy.”
But, more important, Singer was able to revivify the old drama of finding acceptance before God. His most powerful characters do so by acting with a benevolent, wise simplicity: characters such as Gimpel in “Gimpel the Fool,” Akhsa in “A Crown of Feathers,” the magician in The Magician of Lublin, and many others. Reformed sinners, simple good souls, some who turn their backs on the world, others who struggle earnestly to understand the meaning of life, all in different ways are put to the test, are players in the drama of individual salvation.
What makes Isaac Bashevis Singer’s fiction so immensely alive is that its author understood that nothing has successfully replaced this drama, with its sense that one’s actions matter, that they are being judged in the highest court of all, and that the stakes couldn’t be greater. No contemporary human drama has been devised that can compare or compete with the drama of salvation, including the various acquisition dramas: those of acquiring pleasure, money, power, fame, knowledge, happiness on earth in any of its forms.
Nor can the drama of progress in understanding the universe promised by science. As Hertz Grein in Shadow on the Hudson, a character who has fallen away from the religion of his fathers, and one of Singer’s questers, reflects: “What was the universe as Einstein or Eddington conceived it? A lump of clay packed with blind atoms rushing backward and forward, hurling themselves feverishly about.” In the way of personal drama, the best that science provides is that exceedingly dull, altogether predictable three-part scenario: life, death, and certain oblivion.
Meanwhile, Isaac Bashevis Singer, in a thoroughly secularized age, through the power of storytelling, can still persuade his readers that other possibilities exist and that life is not without meaning. Which is why his work will still live when that of the professionally sensitive, the socially engaged, and the literary trick-shot artists of our time is long forgot.